Gerald H Thornhill
Brighton, Sussex, ten o’clock one Saturday evening in late July. It’s warm and balmy. The city is crowded: trippers from London down for the day, young families enjoying a weekend break, football fans on a pub crawl. From the end of the pier, across the water, floats music and excited shouts and screams from the funfair. The promenade is swarming with people, the pubs are jam-packed and as the Brighton Centre empties after a pop concert the clubs start to fill up.
On West Street policemen and policewoman stand in groups of two or three watching the crowds and ignoring the provocative comments, cat-calls and jeers from passing drunken teenagers. The police are there to step in when things get out of hand and the inevitable fights break out.
Between West Street and Middle Street running parallel with Kings Road is a narrow street called South Street, it is ill lit and contains the rear entrances to a hotel, a fish and chip shop, a stationers, and other retail outlets that front onto Kings Road. At the end of South Street where it joins West street a police sergeant stands next to a policewoman as they both observe the hordes of revelers. Parked nearby is one of the police vans, its blue light flashing. The sergeant is middle aged and experienced, the constable is young, in her twenties, tense and uneasy. She has been bussed in for the evening with several of her colleagues from Lewes and is not used to the alcohol filled atmosphere of Saturday night in Brighton with its gangs of football supporters whooping and shouting, the half drunk teenage girls in their skimpy dresses and the hen parties staggering past. She detects an air of nervous anticipation that emenates from her colleagues and it adds to her anxiety. She hears a scream, or it could have been a screech, or a squeal or a shriek from an over excited woman – she takes no notice, she has heard so many excited screams from women tonight, but then she hears it again, it has come from behind her. She turns, as does the sergeant.
Twenty yards away, on ill-lit West Street, a woman is on the ground crawling toward her, a man is running away toward Middle Street; then she sees the figure of another man, also on the ground, prone, elderly, a few yards behind the crawling woman.
‘Get an ambulance!’ the sergeant orders and runs to the stricken woman who has now collapsed on to the roadway, blood streaming down her face and pooling on the tarmac. He kneels down pulling his jacket off and gently folds it under her head. She stares up at him. She has an oriental face, each side of her mouth has been slashed with a knife, blood is streaming out, down her neck, dripping onto his jacket and soaking into the collar of the white woolen sweater she is wearing turning it red. He sees another wound in her stomach. He presses his left hand over it in a vain attempt to stop the blood pumping out. She whispers something in Mandarin and clutches his right hand, but he doesn’t understand and leans closer, ‘You’re going to be all right, love, hang on,’ he says. Her grip on his hand loosens, her eyes start to glaze over, ‘Where’s that bloody ambulance!’ he shouts.
But it’s too late.
‘Psychological Evaluation' they call it.
He has been coming to see me for a week or more now, every day, in the mornings for an hour or so.
‘Call me Jim,’ he said.
Seems a decent enough bloke.
He comes in, sits in one of the chairs and we talk. Well, I talkwould be a better description. The first day he did all the talking, a lot of it, but now he listens. He'll nod occasionally and then smile in an understanding way. He asks a question every now and then just to jog me along, I think. Most of them seem irrelevant:
‘What do you think she meant when she said that?' ‘How did you feel about your daughter's problems?’ ‘Were you shocked when you found that out?’ ‘After that terrible night in Brighton what were your immediate feelings?’
To my way of thinking most of his questions have obvious answers, so I can't think why he asks them, unless it's a way of justifying his presence to me. He takes copious notes and studies them… well, how can I describe it? Studiously.
He is not my idea of a psychologist. He wears grey slacks like I used to wear when I was at school, patterned soft shirts open at the neck, a red button-down cardigan, the sort men used to wear in the fifties and sixties, with their slippers on, sitting by the fire of a winter’s evening. He should smoke a pipe; it would suit him. He wears glasses that sometimes glint in the sunlight streaming through the window and for a few seconds you can't see his eyes and then he becomes an anonymous figure, a mere silhouette, and I get stirrings of panic; who is he? What am I doing here? What is this place?
The only good thing that has happened since he came on the scene is that the police seemed to to have backed off a bit. Perhaps I have been: “Eliminated from enquiries.”
God, I hope so.
I tried to explain to the Sergeant who asked all the questions that I wasn't really involved in it all; I was just on the periphery; simply an observer to what happened. Not exactly true, but near enough.
‘Just an innocent bystander, is that what you are telling me,’ he said in that sneering, skeptical way that police officers seem to have, and he leaned down so his face was just a few inches from mine and looked into my eyes and said no more; and there was a long silence between us. His face so close I could smell the nicotine on his breath and the last pint that had slid down his throat. He was trying to frighten me; intimidate me. Failing of course. I was, am, at that stage in life where a kid of thirty-five, even if he is a policeman representing law and order, the Establishment, the Government, Society – what ever you want to call them - can no longer intimidate me. He was nowhere near as frightening as the D.I. corporal I had in my first weeks of National Service, Corporal Friat, a small guy, smaller than most of us, but with a big voice that was rasping, guttural, commanding. He would come up to you, with a marching gait, stamp his boots (highly polished) lean into your face and shout, ‘Airman!’ Spittle spraying your cheeks and nose and mouth, and then scream, ‘You are pathetic!’
The police sergeant, forty years later, stood no chance.
Jim has asked me to write it all down. He's given me this laptop with ‘Word’ in it.
I'll give it a go. They say that writing can be theraputic.
‘Take your time, old chap, I'm sure it will help,’ he murmurs the words and that’s how he speaks to me, in a gentle, quiet, voice. As if I am a delicate sensitive child.
He means well, though I do wonder if the police aren't behind this. 'Writing it all down' is one way of getting me to 'make a statement' which is what they kept on and on at me to do that night of horror and to their obvious annoyance I refused to do. I needed to get it sorted myself before I attempted to explain it to anyone else. I’m still trying to get it sorted in my mind though it seems to be getting more difficult. To be frank there are times when the whole thing becomes a complete confusion. Dark patterns flash around my head and sink into corners and I can feel myself on the edge of a void frightened to look over. None of this is right. There is something radically wrong. I know it.
I look out of the window, the sun is out, the view across the valley is clear, the trees sway in the gentle breeze; everything seems bright and normal.
But it isn’t.
I talk to Ching Lan about it when she visits and I’ve also spoken to Joan about it, of course. Ching Lan has been coming two or three times a week lately. She comes in the evening and I walk down and meet her. The grounds here are quite extensive and rather beautiful. The main building is at the top of a hill and its surroundings have been landscaped in a series of terraces each connected by footpaths and steps. There are seating areas dotted around the place most with superb views of the Sussex countryside and on the south side, about five miles away, when it’s clear, you can see the sea.
At the foot of the hill there is a lake, though I haven’t ventured that far, I have just seen it glinting in the sunlight as I have walked down to our meeting place which is by an old oak tree in a clearing not too far from the main gate. The oak has a wooden seat attached to its trunk and we sit there and talk.
Ching Lan has made a remarkable recovery from that awful – that horrifying – night in Brighton. The wounds have healed remarkably well. It’s amazing what the doctors can do these days. I’m guessing they sent her to the Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead where they specialise in the type of injuries she suffered, though I haven’t asked her. I should do. She has no scars, her smile is still as bright and warm as ever it was and she chats and laughs and giggles and makes jokes. It’s as if that awful Saturday night never happenened.
I so look forward to her coming, she cheers me up no end and while she is here with me I feel as if I am back to normal. We talk about the future and plan what we are going to do when I am finally declared fit.
Anyhow, like I said, Jim wants me to ‘write it all down’ and I can see it could help. Yes, the whole thing needs background. Description. When the police, or the Crown Prosecution Service, the people at the Enquiry or who ever it is who will decide what to do, I want to be satisfied they really know why I did what I did and what really happened those few weeks last summer. I mean really understand. When I have completed this I want them to be able to put the correct construction on my involvement; define my motives; have the ability to explain my part. Have clarity. Over the next few days, or however long it takes, I shall ensure that happens. I know this sounds a little contradictory after what I have just said about me getting a bit muddled but I have a feeling that writing it all down will help me get my thoughts in order. I hope so because I want to get out of this place. It is not doing me any good being here and I haven’t hesitated in telling that to anyone who will listen to me. The trouble is no one is listening to me. I just get, ‘Give it time, you must be patient’ and ‘ You are ill, Tom, but it will all work out in the end,’ and other such cliché’s. Even David, my son, trots this kind of stuff out when he comes to see me. My daughter, Susan, is a little more sympathetic but she has doubt in her eyes too when I talk to her about Ching Lan and my plans for the future.
Okay. I’ll start.
The first thing I want to say is: This just happened – like most things in life.
It just happened.
But of course there are reasons why I became involved, and causes, and they need to be known. There are always thought processes that lead us to do what we do so I’ll try to explain mine. A girl was knifed in the most horrifying way and left on a public street in a pool of blood and her children, her parents, her friends, and, I suppose, the law itself, wants to know why.
I think of her as a girl, but of course she is a woman of thirty – though I thought she was younger. It doesn’t matter; I always thought of her as a girl. It’s an age thing. When you reach my age any female under forty seems like a girl.
You have to understand that I am just an ordinary bloke; retired, an old age pensioner, nothing remarkable about me. When I was a kid I failed most exams including the eleven-plus and went to the local Secondary Modern school. Did a paper round, went scrumping with my friends, had a crush on the music teacher, then fell in love with a girl in the third year but never told her.
I left school at fifteen and worked at various jobs: in a factory, in a shop, in a warehouse. I had no qualifications, no GCEs or what ever the equivalent was in those days. I was a Secondary Modern School boy. I left with no qualifications and was therefore deemed to be a scholastic failure and destined to be a plumber, or a carpenter, or a fitter, or, well – learn a trade, and spend the rest of my life earning a living by using my hands. That was how it was supposed to be – that was how those in charge of the education system in those days had decided it should be.
Nothing wrong with earning your living with your hands – but plumbing or fitting or anything like that never appealed to me, it just wasn’t my thing, so after I left school I drifted from one job to another. It was a different then, you could do that, there was always work around – if you wanted it.
After a few years of drifting from one job to another without any kind of direction, simply picking up my pay packet at the end of the week, giving a couple of quid to my Mum, pocketing the rest and then going out on the razzle for the weekend, I got myself a job with an airline – in ground operations – at Heathrow, which I really enjoyed. I continued to live it up but now with a different kind of crowd, airline people, second officers, air-hostesses, junior and middle management. I would go up the West End with some of them, down the local pub or to one of the airline parties. There was a party somewhere most weekends – a message would appear on the rest-room notice board, ‘Party, at Jeannies, Norton Street, Hayes, Saturday night, BYOB’– they were wild, crowded, noisy, very alcoholic and fun.
It was at one of the airline parties I met Joan. It wasn’t one of those ‘across a crowded room’ moments by any means. I was pouring myself a wine from what I thought was the bottle I had brought with me, the host had told me to put it in the kitchen with the rest of the booze. I hadn’t noticed her come in. She grabbed at the bottle as I poured causing me to spill wine onto my trousers.
‘That’s not your wine,’ she said in an angry voice.
‘Hey? What?’ I was irritated by the clumsy way she had grabbed at the bottle and her tone of voice. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Don’t you understand english? That. Is. Not. Your. Bottle.’
‘Is it yours?
‘How do you know?’
She pointed to a small label stuck on the side of the bottle, ‘Joan C’.
'Oh,’ I tried my best smile. ‘Chardonnay from Sainsbury’s,’ I waved to the table full of bottles. ‘I have one just the same, somewhere. 'So, sorry.’
She seemed to relax a little. She shook her head, ‘No, I shouldn’t have…’ She pointed to the wet patch on my trouser leg. ‘I’m the one that should apologise, but I’ve just had this almighty row with my boy friend – not that that’s any excuse for rudeness – but, well, I’m a bit wound up and…’ She shrugged her shoulders. ‘You caught me at a bad moment.’
‘That’s okay. Where is he? Your boy friend?’
She was wearing a white cotton off-the-shoulder blouse. It had a black swirly pattern running along the elasticated top and showed off her figure well. Her face was round, pixie-like and now the anger had dissipated I could see she was a very attractive girl.
‘He’s stalked off somewhere. I don’t know where. I don’t care where to be honest with you.’
I picked up the bottle of wine. ‘Have a drink,’ I said, grinning.
She held out a glass and I poured her some wine.
That was the start of it. I never found out who the boy friend was or what the row had been about and I didn’t care and after the first couple of dates with Joan it became clear she didn’t either.
Apart from that first slightly fraught encounter Joan and I always got on well. We went out together for about year, got engaged, got married, had two children. That’s how it worked in those days. There was no question of living together before the wedding or rejecting the whole idea of marriage the way couples do now. We ‘courted’ for about a year before the wedding, a white one of course – and both stayed in the aviation business until just a few years ago. Joan worked in Passenger Services for BA for thirty odd years – apart from the breaks to have the children. Then the boom years in the airline business came to an end. Fuel prices and the 'War On Terror' hit airlines hard and they started to shed workers. Both Joan and I were lucky in many ways. Both of us were offered early retirement packages that these days would seem dream-like to some of the poor sods who are in the present employment market. We were offered reasonably good pensions – even though we were both still in our fifties, and good lump sums to go with them.
My son, David, married a local girl, Joy produced two grandchildren for us and they visit – or I go to see them – most weeks. My daughter, Susan, married a surveyor about fifteen years ago. Until their break-up they lived in a penthouse flat in Horsham. No children. She and her husband, Charles, visited quite often too. He works in London at the head office of a big international civil engineering company. He has a very fancy title which I can never remember, but basically he is part of a team which finds the answers to various engineering problems: What type of bridge should be built across this river, what route that new highway should take, what type of tramway system is best for a city with major traffic difficulties – those kind of problems.
Every year, after Joan and I retired, we would take off somewhere abroad for weeks on end, months sometimes – Greece, Spain, Turkey, Portugal, Florida – always somewhere warm, and as we were able to get discounted air fares we could easily afford to rent a villa or a condo for a few weeks and laze in the sun and read, eat, drink, and just ‘chill out’ as they say these days. I would walk to the nearest bar; have a few beers, chat to the locals if any of them spoke English; drink too much. We would maybe hire a car and visit the sites, try and enjoy a little culture.
We moved into the house in Haywards Heath ten years or more ago. Three bed detached, double garage, manageable garden. We both worked on the house, did it up: new bathroom, put in an ensuite to the master bedroom, renewed the kitchen, built a conservatory. In short renovated it.
I converted one of the back bedrooms into an editing studio. Video – a hobby of mine ever since video cameras became cheap enough for the ordinary guy in the street to buy. It was Joan's idea. After I retired she wanted me to do something that would ‘keep me focused.’ So with her help and encouragement I started my own video production company. With our contacts in aviation we did okay, producing training, instructional and safety videos. In the first couple of years we made enough to fully equip the studio: two editing suites, good software, monitors, copying decks – everything I needed. I also won a contract with the local football team to film some of their home matches; useful for training purposes, of course. I couldn’t do that on my own and I hired in a couple of cameramen and a steadycam operator for that but it worked out okay.
After three years I started to make a profit and everything was going well. ‘Retirement’ was proving to be a great success.
We built a summerhouse in the corner of the garden and when the days are long and warm, I like to sit in the front of it reading. It’s a favourite pastime of mine, reading, always has been. Novels, thrillers, police procedurals, most sorts of fiction really, but not historical fiction – could never get into that.
‘You’ve always got your nose in a book!’ My mum would often say to me when I was a kid, and it was true – I often would. If I was asked what is the worst thing that could happen to you losing the ability to read would be high on the list.
Anyway, about four years ago I was sitting by the summerhouse with a book. It was one of those warm springtime days that we sometimes get in early May. There was a slight breeze rustling the leaves, the birds were singing, I could hear a petrol mower in the distance. Joan had gone in to the town to look at curtains; she had decided the lounge needed a change. I was reading an Ed McBain 87thPrecinct novel, ‘The Big Bad City.’
Funny how you remember little details about days you can’t forget.
I was well in to ‘The Big Bad City’ when I became conscious the wailing siren of an ambulance had drowned out the sound of the mower. The house is not close to any main road and it was unusual to be disturbed by such noises. The siren became louder and louder, wailing up and down the way they do, and then stopped. Our avenue runs off a semi-main road and I concluded there had been an accident there. Then, a few minutes later, came the wha-wha, wha-wha, of a police car.
Curiosity got the better of me and I put my book down and strolled down the avenue. When I reached the road blue lights were flashing everywhere. The crashed car was side on to a brick wall, the bonnet crumpled, the near side smashed in, wisps of steam rising lazily; a pool of oil on the pavement, shards of glass scattered across the road; several onlookers. Two policemen in their yellow jackets were tugging at the driver’s door trying to open it.
Before I realised I remember thinking, ‘Oh, it’s the same make of car, and same colour as ours.’
I don’t remember too much of what happened after that. An argument with one of the policeman at the scene, I do remember that.
‘Were you involved in this incident, sir? Can I take your name, sir?’ And me losing it with him. Poor kid.
They told me Joan had suffered a massive brain hemorrhage and had felt nothing. They were being kind I think, for how would they know she felt nothing?
I can’t remember too much of the weeks following Joan’s death. We had been together for so long I thought we always would be. I couldn’t accept she had gone. It had been such a good marriage. The love Joan and I had for each other had grown deeper and deeper as the years went by. For the first few months I know I drank too much. It was as if I had taken a few steps away from reality and was observing life from a hazy distance. The things that were happening around my body were nothing to do with me, or so it seemed. I had somehow lost connection. And then a strange thing happened – and I know this is going to sound far-fetched – but it’s true, it really is. I started to see her again. I would be cooking breakfast in the kitchen and she would be there, just for a little while, “Everything all right, love?” She would ask with her gentle smile and I would nod and return her smile. It wasn’t ghost like, or frightening or anything like that, she would be there, just for a few seconds, “Are you okay, love?” and I would be okay; her being there and checking how I was seemed so natural. The way, perhaps, it should be.
The kids were good. They had lost a wonderful Mum but in spite of their grief were still able to spend time and energy pulling me round. Joan and I had been married forty years so it wasn’t easy, and not surprising, I suppose, that I was affected the way I was. But eventually things started to come back into focus. The real world slowly shimmered back. ‘Life goes on’ as people like to say, and a lot of them did. I didn’t mention Joan’s ‘visits’ to David, he wouldn’t have understood. Though I did mention it to Susan once as she was leaving after a visit. She put her arms around me and said, “You are still in mourning, Dad. It effects us all in different ways, don’t worry about it.”
I don’t think she really understood. I wasn’t worrying about it. I found Joan’s ‘visits’ comforting and somehow helpful.
I had no money worries. There was a pretty decent pension from my company, and a proportion of Joan’s pension passed to me as her widower; and then the insurance company paid out a reasonable sum. Then, of course, I had the video business, which brought in a few pennies, so the ‘Autumn of my life,’ as these years are often described, had become comfortable though a little lonely.
The shock of Joan not being a consant presence slowly subsided and my lonliness diminished and, of course, the little fleeting ‘visits’ helped. I don’t think it is surprising there is still a little corner where she resides. I didn’t mention Joan’s ‘visits’ to Susan again. I didn’t want to see that look of doubt mixed with a certain suspicion cross her face again.
Before I met Ching Lan I would get a bit maudlin and shed tears but I think that was only natural.
Time went by. I slowly settled into a new routine, a routine without Joan always being there.
‘You must keep focused.' 'Think of yourself now,’ people would say to me – and other such platitudes. ‘You have your health, make the most of it,’ was another recurring one.
The video business was neglected for a while but the kids insisted I get back to it, which I did, and maybe that was what helped to pull me round.
So, you can see – I’m a very ordinary kind of guy. Apart from the tragedy of Joan’s sudden death nothing remarkable has ever happened to me. I’m the typical ordinary ‘man in the street.’ I've sometimes thought that if by some strange inexplicable twist of fate I was able to observe myself for a a month or so and then have to describe me in two words I would probably have to say, ‘Rather dull.’
I've never been in any kind of trouble – got a speeding fine once, but I don’t count that – I do like a drink now and then, but nothing like when Joan passed. Just two or three, maybe four, now and then. What’s wrong with that? I mean I don’t get pissed and then start picking fights with people – that kind of thing is completely alien to me. No, a few beers with a couple of mates and that suits me fine. I've never had my name in a newspaper, been to any wild parties, participated in an orgy. More’s the pity, I sometimes think.
On the whole it’s not been a bad life. When you get to my age you tend to look back and take stock rather than look forward to what may be achieved, and I’ve done that, and I don’t think it’s been too bad. There have been ups and downs, periods of happiness, unhappiness, disappointments, and frustrations, times of contentment. There have been bad decisions, and wise decisions. These last few years I’ve tended to enjoy what I can while I can. Since Joan died I’ve become very conscious of time running out, as it does for all of us.
After Joan’s death I almost, but not quite, lived the life of a monk. I had a couple of 'relationships' or 'flings' perhaps would be a better description; but nothing memorable. The first was with a woman I used to work with. She was in her forties, divorced, one child – a girl – at university. We met one afternoon in the Crawley Mall, got talking, and had a coffee together. One thing led to another... It lasted a few months, but I don't think our hearts were in it and I never took her back to my place. The sex was fine, well, I thought so at the time but it was before I met Ching Lan, of course.
The second was literally a one night stand with a woman I met at a friends fiftieth birthday party. We both had too much to drink and in the morning I awoke in her bed and we looked at each other, and well, that was the end of that. But anyway, in the end you need more than just sex, don’t you?
Before Joan died, and after retirement, I got into the habit, when not busy in the studio, of going into Brighton once a week or so. Joan would occasionally accompany me, but mostly I went on my own. To be honest, I preferred to be on my own, I could do and go where the fancy took me, eat if I wanted to, where I wanted to, have drink if I wanted to and not have to worry – if Joan was with me I would find myself in shops I would never normally visit, or expensive restaurants I didn’t like. I couldn’t just wander around as I would on my own; sit in the park by The Pavilion as I sometimes did, take another look at the statue of Max Miller, explore The Lanes… Joan would like to have a definite plan – we’ll go here, go there, eat here, have drink there, catch the 8.16 home – that kind of thing. So mostly I would go on my own.
I’ve always liked Brighton. It has a kind of cheap glamour about it, which I find fascinating. Years and years ago I read Graham Greene’s ‘Brighton Rock,’ and I became hooked on the place. His book created this image in my head of a town with a sleazy attraction; of 1940s film noir, cheap excitement, controlled danger and a glimpse of a gangsterish world that I wanted to be – but would never be – part of.
So most weeks I would get to the front door and shout: ‘I’m off, love, going to Brighton!’ And I would hear her answer, ‘Yes, alright, dear.’ And within a few minutes I would be at the station and a half hour later I’d be on Brighton’s Queens Road walking down the hill toward the sea. If the weather was fine I would stroll along the prom, go on to the pier, sit on one of the benches like old men do, and people watch. Or just wander around the shops for a while and have a half in one of the pubs; spend some time in Waterstones, buy a paperback. I would meander along Western Road, stop at another pub and have another half. I would never get drunk – that wasn’t the idea at all – just two or three relaxing beers, a stroll around the shops, nothing exciting; a bit dull perhaps, and predictable maybe. In fact writing it down it makes it seem quite boring.
Then came the day when it wasn’t dull, and it wasn’t boring, or predictable.
And it was exciting.
It was a Wednesday. May time. Last year. The weather was beautiful, it was warm, the temperature in the high seventies, a blue cloudless sky. I was feeling a bit lonely, a bit down and decided a trip into Brighton might do the trick. I had got off the train and wandered down Queens Road as usual. Brighton was crowded just as the train had been – trippers from London taking advantage of the fine weather. I turned left at the Clock Tower and walked down North Street, then through The Lanes to the promenade. Instead of its usual dull English Channel gray the sea had some colour for once, patches of blue mixed with a definite green, and the beach was crowded. The bars and cafe’s below the promenade were busy. Gangs of youths drinking beer and lager and getting rowdy; little kids on the nearby galloping horses roundabout screaming and having a wonderful time.
I thought of going down and having a beer myself but the atmosphere was just too noisy for me and I walked on. After a while I crossed Kings Road with the intention, I think, of making my way up to Churchill Square and perhaps having a drink there, but I found myself outside The Grand Hotel and on an impulse went in. I turned in to the Victoria Bar and sat down in a comfortable chair by one of the tables. A pianist was playing and waiters were serving coffee and biscuits and the bar was busy even though it was only a little after eleven.
The last time I had been in The Grand was with Joan and a couple of friends some years before just after I had left my Company. We had dinner in the restaurant one Saturday evening and afterwards danced to the resident band. It had been a kind of celebration, I remember – celebrating my retirement. The place didn’t seem to have changed much. The Victoria bar still looked the same. The chairs still just as comfortable.
A waiter soon appeared in front of me and asked if he could get me something from the menu. I ordered coffee, settled back and looked around.
The hotel was humming. There was some sort of conference going on at the nearby Brighton Centre or maybe it was just the good weather that had brought people out. In any case, there was quite a mixture of people: Middle aged ladies taking a break from shopping; across from me a couple of yuppie type young men talking earnestly to each other about portfolios and a man, 45 or so, wearing a loud green jacket, red tie, with a dark coloured pork pie hat with a white band round it, was just making himself comfortable at a small round table in the corner. It struck me he was trying to look like a cool Frank Sinatra type, but he looked more like a 1950s street bookie. He reminded me of someone but I couldn't place who it was. At another table three businessmen were staring intently at the screen of a laptop. They all looked serious and a little worried – maybe their shares had just plunged and were facing ruin.
The room was noisy with the babble of conversation, the clink of cups in saucers and the tinkling of the piano. I felt sympathy for the pianist. He was playing Cole Porter tunes – ‘They Can’t Take That Away From Me,’ ‘Moonlight In Vermont’ – that kind of thing, and nobody appeared to be paying any attention just talking at and listening to each other. I speculated to myself that maybe he was used to it and knew he was just there to help create, and be, part of the atmosphere.
The coffee was brought to my table, and, of course this wasn’t your Starbucks. This was silver coffer pots from silver trays, delicate china cups, and brown and white sugar cubes, and your waiter asking, with a hint of deference in his voice: ‘Do you prefer cream or milk, sir?’
I was sitting there, enjoying the coffee and munching at one of the ginger biscuits provided, when I saw her. I have since thought a number of times that had I not allowed my eyes to linger on her as I did and just drunk my coffee and left none of what I am now relating would have happened; I wouldn’t be in this place having too many visits from David and Susan with their worrried looks and their doubting remarks. But I did and everything flowed from that moment.
She was standing at the entrance to the bar, looking around as if she expected to see somebody. One of the waiters walked up to her and said something and she nodded. I couldn’t take my eyes off her and found myself watching as she was led toward where I was sitting. The waiter seemed to be taking her past me but she touched his arm and he stopped and she indicated the table next to mine, which had just been vacated by an elderly lady.
‘Oh, I thought madam may have wanted – ‘
She interrupted him and said, ‘Here, I sit here,’ and sat down. Soft voice, strong accent. Her eyes met mine as she made herself comfortable, and I turned away, embarrassed.
The waiter asked what he could get her.
‘Coffee,’ she said.
She placed her handbag, a beige and black checked thing with a large red looped handle, on the floor beside her. I noticed what looked like a Cartier watch on her wrist.
Her hair was black and down to below her shoulders, framing an asian face. She wore a yellow top, a blouse kind of thing with a scooped neckline, and black shorts which showed off her legs. She had a good figure and I guessed her to be around twenty-seven or so. Not beautiful or pretty or anything like that – but there was something about her. I can’t define it. Something in her face; in her eyes perhaps. I mean, when you think about it – what is it that attracts us to one person and not another? You just can’t say, can you?
I remember thinking there must be a thirty year or more difference between us, so it wasn’t a generation gap here it was probably a two generations gap. But I looked across at her again anyway, and once more our eyes met but this time I didn’t turn away because she smiled. It was such a smile – warm, natural, friendly. It was a smile that created one of those glad-to-be-alive moments that are all too rare in our lives. Surely you know what I mean? Okay, I know you may think this all sounds hopelessly imaginative, even stupidly romantic. I could easily agree. Look, I am an old man now. In my late sixties for Christ’s sake. Too old to be fancying strange woman in the bars of hotels, you may say. Yes, well, in the past, when Joan was alive, I looked at other women, of course I did, I’m a man after all. That’s what we do, don’t we? Fancy other women. But I never followed up, never had the urge, the curiosity, what ever it is that drives you in that direction, it just produces unhappiness, stress, mental problems. ‘It does your head in,’ a friend of mine, whohadstrayed, once said to me.
It does your head in.
But… but…that day, as she stood there at the entrance, the buzz of the hotel’s morning all around her, guests at the desk checking out, porters carrying bags, luggage trolleys being pushed past, there was something about her that caught me.
The waiter brought her the coffee she had ordered. He went through the same ritual he had gone through with me: delicate china cups placed on the table, followed by the silver coffee pot, silver bowl containing brown and white sugar lumps and a small silver milk jug. Only he poured the coffee for her, which he hadn’t done for me, and as he did so I caught her eye again, and fell into her smile again, and I shrugged my shoulders and nodded toward the waiter as if to say he's a bit over the top, isn't he?
She winked, a conspiratorial wink, as if only she and I understood, and then touched the waiter's arm, and dismissed him with a 'thank you, that will be all,' kind of gesture.
Those few seconds, that engaging smile, the wink, it gave me such a kick, a sudden rush of adrenalin, like a quick fix of cocaine – not that I have ever had cocaine let me quickly add, but it was how I imagine it would be. And maybe that analogy is a good one, considering how I acted over the next few weeks – but I'm getting ahead of myself here.
She wasn't being forward or anything like that. No, she was just trying to convey a thought to me and I understood it straight away. It was disarming, charming, it was attractive and it was funny.
We got talking. I think I asked her if she was staying at the hotel, but she didn't answer, just shook her head. I thought I had made a mistake and she was assuming I was just a dirty old man trying to pick her up. Maybe I was. But then she asked me what the name of the tune the pianist was playing and I told her.
‘Moonlight in Vermont, it's a Cole Porter song.’
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘Cole Porter, he wrote lots of songs.’
I picked up my cup and stood, and moved toward her table.
‘May I join you, are you on your own?’
This was so out of character for me I could hardly believe I had said it, done it, but she smiled again and pointed to the chair opposite her and said, ‘Of course.’
I sat down, sipped my coffee.
'They can be irritating, sometimes, can't they? Waiters.’ I said.
‘Iwitating?’ She couldn't get her tongue around the rs.
‘Yes, you know – annoying, fussing around like that, with the cups and -’
‘Ah, yes, I understand. Too much fussing. You are wite.’
And that was the start of it. This – what should I call it – this 'association,' this 'relationship,' this 'affair.' No, none of these words are quite right. It became a friendship, a close friendship. When it comes down to it that's what it became – a close friendship.
And it all started at the Grand Hotel on that warm day in Brighton, last summer.
MORE WHEN PUBLISHED (If published)